Talking About Your Child With Autism
Just a kid. A child with autism is still a kid. They still like to laugh and have fun. They may become overly fixated on one thing, but they still want to make friends, talk, and have fun. Adults in the life of a child with autism can help by following the child’s lead and observing how they have fun, helping the child to adapt and broaden areas of interest, and helping them to share, interact, and engage with other children in play.
Say hi. Don’t just ignore a child with autism, even if they are nonverbal, or don’t reciprocate. It may take many more times before they learn to reciprocate. Using social greetings appropriately and at the right time is a skill set, and it may take them longer to gain those skills. Try not to give up too soon.
Talk to them. It may be more difficult to process information, and short and simple phrasing may be better, but continue to make the effort to talk to a child with autism so that they hear and see language in action.
Talk with your hands. Some children who struggle with verbal communication use formal sign language to ‘bridge the gap’ while they are learning to talk. But beyond that, and for all individuals with and without autism, visual supports and gestures can be used help to clarify verbal information. We all use our hands to gesture when we give directions or describe something, to support our words, and these additional visual cues can help.
Use correct grammar. A child with autism who struggles with language still benefits from hearing many models of correct grammar and language sequencing. In fact, some may demonstrate relative strengths in imitation of your phrases and sentences, and so it is best if they are simple but intact grammatical utterances.
Don’t ask too many questions. Children who are delayed in speaking end up frequently being asked so many questions. Rather, try to model for them how to may make a request, or how to start or maintain a conversation. Questions, by their very nature, often contain pronouns and abstract language, both of which can be challenging for children with autism to understand and use appropriately. Typically children learn to make declarative statements before formulating questions.
Consider what they may ‘hear.’ Children with autism struggle with interpreting the ‘words between the lines,’ the jokes, idioms, and sarcasm. It takes longer for a child to process abstract language, and so during those early years when you say ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’ our children with autism may be the first kids to run to the window to look for the ‘cats and dogs.’
Consider what they may not ‘see.’ Similar to processing nonliteral information, interpreting nonverbal information all around us is difficult for those with autism. This may include reading facial expressions, physical cues, appropriate loudness for space and proximity to others, and the boundless nonverbal information all around. This difficulty accounts for a lot of the child’s social skills needs.
Do not force eye contact. Eye contact is one of the basics of nonverbal communication that many children and adults with autism struggle with. While it is normal to make eye contact when greeting someone and during conversation, for some individuals with autism who have difficulty processing information, they may have to focus so much in order to maintain eye contact, that it may cause them to lose track of what is being said. It is a case of ‘either or’ for those individuals. Try to gradually increase the child’s ability to make eye contact when greeting or talking to someone, and sharing eye gaze on an object being discussed, until the child is able to maintain eye contact for up to the average 3 seconds which is the norm, without losing their ability to also track what is being said in the message.
It all adds up. The above considerations for communication, and the need for communication throughout all of our daily activities and community settings, one can see how much effort can be required for the individual with autism to communicate effectively and for the peers and adults who strive to help them. Peers and adult caregivers may have to develop a ‘thick skin’ so not to take things personally when the person with autism unintentionally violates social or conversational rules. Children with autism may say things to get attention, or to even to avoid attention, however they do not by nature say things to hurt others’ feelings.
How to Talk About Your Child with Autism
If ever there were a group that needed parents to advocate and educate others about their behavior, communication barriers, preferences, and unique needs, it is our children with autism.
A child with an autism spectrum disorder, regardless of severity, will experience social language deficits and behavioral challenges. Those who care for and about them will require patience, understanding, and respect. It may take time, but every individual in our community brings something unique to our human experience, and teaches us something. Some of the greatest scientific accomplishments and artistic works seen by our society can be attributed to individuals known or suspected to have autism. It is our responsibility as one Michigan community to help uncover the hidden talents, and untapped potential in this group of individuals, as well as to support those who struggle and function on their own without help.
Discussing the cause of autism and the many factors can be very complex, and can even become a ‘heated’ and emotional discussion. Autism is so diverse, and not only can look quite different from person to person, but is also a quite a different experience of diagnostic and treatment factors, and journey along the way.
We do know what all individuals with autism share. Autism is a brain disorder that is caused by a combination of genetic predisposition and the environmental factors that influence the genetic and neurological expression. Individuals with autism share two common things, social language and behavioral differences. They learn differently. Other than that, the many things we know about autism, sensory hyper or hypo-responsiveness, intelligence, language abilities, feeding and gastrointestinal issues, motor skills, and sleep patterns, are just trends and concomitant factors that we see in some individuals with autism, things that we need to discover about each individual with autism along their unique journey.
When we talk about individuals with autism, we use person-first language. This means that we do not dehumanize individuals by referring to them by their diagnosis, for example “autistic boy.” We want to first acknowledge the person- that is the ‘little boy with autism,’ or the ‘sister who has autism,’ and ‘student with autism.’ As children get older, we want to acknowledge to continue to acknowledge them as people first, just was we would acknowledge other adults- the ‘artist,’ ‘musician,’ ‘man,’ ‘college student.’ This is the intention of the Autism Alliance’s Kick the –tic campaign, where you can hear from college students with a variety of disabilities from local Michigan Universities share how they see themselves and how they are not defined by their disability. Our message is that simple…We’ve banned the R-Word, now Kick- the –Tic!